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Trip of the Week

On a Los Angeles-to-San Diego Railroad Ramble

February 21, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

Riding the rails is such a novelty in Southern California that it makes a wonderful family excursion.

For grandparents, the journey will be a reminder of bygone days when the Pacific Electric's "big red cars" provided public transportation around the Southland. For children who've never ridden a train or a trolley, it's a special thrill.

There's spectacular coastal scenery along the rail route, too.

If you're interested in a relaxing way to reach Tijuana, take the tracks from downtown Los Angeles all the way to the Mexican border. Amtrak's diesel trains make eight round trips daily to San Diego, where you connect to an electric trolley that runs round trip to the border at San Ysidro.

Board Amtrak at the famous, Mediterranean-style Union Station, a classic train terminal that first welcomed passengers in 1939. It's in downtown Los Angeles on Alameda Street, a block north of the U.S. 101 freeway. Park in front of the depot or in its underground garage.

Six Stops Along the Way

The trip from Los Angeles to San Diego's grand old Santa Fe station takes about 2 3/4 hours. Along the route are six stops where passengers can also board or get off. Travel time on the San Diego trolley to the Mexican border is 41 minutes.

Buy your train ticket from a travel agent or at Union Station. Round-trip excursion fare for an unreserved coach seat is $28.50; kids 2 through 11 with a paying adult are half-fare.

For $5 more per seat, or $38.50 round trip, Amtrak offers Custom Class, which gives you a reserved seat with extra leg room, a complimentary newspaper and coffee, tea or orange juice.

If you board along the way, get a ticket from the Amtrak stations in Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana or Del Mar. At the San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside stops, buy tickets from the train conductor after boarding.

Choose a seat on the right side going south. You'll have an ocean view as the train travels along the coast.

Self-Service Amcafe

San Diegan trains have a minimum of five Amfleet passenger cars that are filled with commuters on weekdays and sightseers on weekends. Smoking is restricted to certain coaches and seats.

In the middle of the train is a self-service Amcafe with a full-service bar and snacks that include microwave-heated sandwiches. Some passengers take their own food aboard.

The coaches offer the comfort of wide-body planes with reclining aircraft-type seats and pull-down trays for drinks and food.

Seating is two abreast along a center aisle. Families and foursomes can choose pairs of seats that face each other and provide the best viewing through the train's wide windows. Wheelchair-bound travelers can be accommodated, too.

Start your railroad ramble early by departing Los Angeles on the 8 a.m. or 10:45 a.m. train. Return from San Diego at 4:45 p.m., 6:45 p.m. or the last run at 8:45 p.m.

Backdoor View

The southbound trip begins by backing out of Union Station to join the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe tracks along the Los Angeles River. You'll see the Civic Center skyline, then pass the train yard filled with sleeping and observation cars used on Amtrak's longer routes.

The train turns southeast through Vernon, Commerce and Santa Fe Springs, giving you a somewhat unsightly backdoor view of diverse industries. Trucking centers, oil wells and residential areas appear before the first stop, Fullerton.

You'll see more industry and homes before stops at the edge of Anaheim Stadium and soon after in Santa Ana. As the train rolls through the Irvine Ranch, you pass fields of produce and the huge blimp hangers that house Marine Corps helicopters.

At the next stop, San Juan Capistrano, you'll glimpse the new mission church that replaced the original one destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. Then the tracks reach the ocean and follow the shore past the San Onofre nuclear power plant and Camp Pendleton to Oceanside. (One stop daily is made in San Clemente.)

Beach Cruise

The train goes along the beach through seaside towns, making a stop in Del Mar, and turns inland again for the final stretch. It curves around a canyon, then parallels Interstate 5 past historic Old Town, and pulls up to San Diego's vintage depot built in 1915. (For more Amtrak information, call (800) 872-7245.)

You can continue to ride the rails by going through the station lobby and across Kettner Boulevard to the City Center terminus of the bright red San Diego Trolley.

Tickets are picked up from a vending machine on the sidewalk. Use dollar bills or coins to pay the $1.50 one-way fare for a 16-mile ride to the end of the line at San Ysidro. Seniors more than 60 pay 50 cents; children six or younger ride free.

Two or more cars make each trip in tandem, each with 64 seats and room for twice as many standing passengers. Get aboard by pressing the lighted green button alongside the car doors.

Trolleys generally run every 15 minutes during the day, and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m. until after midnight. Smoking, drinking and eating are not permitted in the cars.

Trolley Trips

The smooth-riding trolleys roll on new tracks through San Diego's business district, then turn south to pick up the right-of-way of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway.

You'll see dozens of oceangoing vessels while passing commercial shipbuilding yards and the U.S. Naval Station at National City. Then the tracks parallel Interstate 5 past produce fields, housing tracts and trucking depots.

On straight stretches the trolley picks up speed, but it also makes 16 stops before reaching the border. A few steps from the San Ysidro terminus is a zigzag pedestrian overpass leading to Mexico, and taxis that will take you to downtown Tijuana.

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